Russia’s Trump dividend in Europe
7 Dec 2016|

Image courtesy of Flickr user Bonnie Natko.

We’ll have to wait to see what Donald Trump’s election means for Europe. Immediate responses have predicted a boost for right wing populist political parties in Europe. The presence and popularity of Eurosceptic and nationalist parties has been growing in Europe for some years. Like Trump, they’re also seen to be drawing on public resentment towards a remote political class that failed to resolve the economic consequences of the financial crisis, the challenge of immigration, or prevent the dilution of national culture from the EU’s freedom of movement policies. The impacts of the US election will be varied in nature and scope, but Russia is best placed to gain the biggest strategic dividend.

Europe’s political environment and institutions are very different from the US and its geopolitical situation is far more complex. Trump’s victory doesn’t mean a wave of far-right regimes will pop up across Europe. However, the most significant impacts of rising populism can already be seen among the traditional centre-right and left parties as they move to the right to deflect the populist challenge now newly energized by Trump’s victory.

Trade is emblematic of fissiparous forces at work in the EU. Already national governments have been moving to distance themselves from the EU’s negotiation of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). In part that’s an attempt to parry the political capital being made by a collection of far right groups, environmentalists and social activists. The concerns of those groups include consequences for employment, maintenance of European standards, and the further undermining of national sovereignty and independence.

Although serious doubts already existed about success of the trade agreement, the anti-free trade thrust in Trump’s campaign means the TTIP will now be almost impossible to resurrect. Inevitably, Eurosceptic and xenophobic parties will claim this as a victory but worryingly major European parties, including in Germany and France, have will also seek to claim credit.

Even if they’re successful in blunting the electoral appeal of the Eurosceptic and xenophobic parties by adopting some of their policies, mainstream European parties will have irreversibly changed the political landscape. Support for a supra-national arrangement like the EU can probably only come out of a catastrophic event such as the Second World War and once that support’s lost, it’s inevitable that the process of greater integration and expansion will be reversed.

Russia may be the primary beneficiary of Europe’s reaction to Trump’s victory. Russia’s recent actions in the Ukraine and Syria have been described as part of a geopolitical project to undo the ‘post–Cold War Euro-Atlantic security order.’ Russia has already made progress on this score. If the Trump presidency now contributes to the unravelling or weakening of the unity of the EU, as well as  unsettling NATO, it would represent a significant strategic gain for Russia.

The European Council on Foreign Relations warns that, ‘Moscow’s “special services” conduct active measures aimed at subverting and destabilizing European governments’. One means employed by Russia has been to clandestinely support European Eurosceptic and xenophobic parties. Early this year Congress tasked the US intelligence community to investigate Russia’s infiltration and ties with the right wing parties in Europe as a result of growing concern about, ‘Moscow’s determination to exploit European disunity to undermine NATO, block US missile defence programs and revoke punitive economic sanctions imposed after the annexation of Crimea’.

However many observers already see the evidence of the connections and ideological synergy between Putin’s Russia and the right wing parties in Europe and proof of Russian financial support. Were the success of the Trump campaign to presage a similar upsurge of electoral success for anti-EU or nationalist parties in the upcoming European elections only Russia could gain from the consequential pressure on European unity.

Whether Russia’s geopolitical maneuvering is labelled ‘hybrid war’ or seen as a revival of Soviet Cold War tactics, Moscow has plenty of scope to apply increased pressure to the EU and NATO as the supranational bonds begin to soften. Signs of a warming of Russia–US relations coupled with a follow through by the new US administration’s demands for European NATO members to meet agreed funding levels or to subsidizing US troop presence will provide fertile ground for Russian adventurism—in the Baltics, the Balkans and the Caucasus, and through political proxies in Europe.

The EU was already under strain prior to Trump’s election. The anti-EU forces, with ongoing support from Russia, will undoubtedly adopt and adapt the formula that brought Trump electoral success. That will force the traditional political parties across Europe to shift further from the liberal centre towards the nationalistic right. In turn that will further weaken the EU, and eventually NATO, relative to Russia.

The consequences will go beyond the EU. It will become harder to maintain the Western consensus over sanctions on Russia for the Ukraine and reduce the capacity of the US and its allies to exercise strategic influence in many places around the world.